Honouring Sarath Amunugama through Essays in Home and The World”

Dhammika Amarasinghe, in The Island,  5 February 2011

The book mirrors the man. The man is Dr. Sarath Amunugama, eminent public servant of yester year, sociologist, scholar, writer, orator, poet, dramatist, connoisseur (of many things – including the fine arts) and at the end of his career, perhaps unfortunately – politician. The volume has been brought out by his ever-loyal daughters Ramanika and Varuni to celebrate their hero’s 70 years of ‘a full life’ (the title of another of their filial tributes in a different genre). The book is a festschrift in honour of Sarath Amunugama. The list of contributors reads almost like a Roll of Honour of contemporary Sri Lankan intellectual life, ranging as it does from Gananath Obeyesekere and Stanley J Tambiah through Siri Gunasinghe, J. B. Dissanayake and Carlo Fonseka to Jayantha Dhanapala, H. L. Seneviratne and Saman Kelegama (and many more of the same vintage). The standing of the contributors, almost all of whom are incidentally long-time friends and associates of Amunugama, and the wealth of high quality material encapsulated in this volume of 400 pages, makes the writing of a ‘review’ almost a daunting task. Therefore, what can be done is only to give some flavour of a selection of the contributions. The range of contributors mirrors not only the standing of the man being honoured but also the wide spectrum of his interests and accomplishments.

The first essay in the book is by the reputed anthropologist of the Princeton University, Professor Gananath Obeyesekere, Amunugama’s guru at Peradeniya and longstanding friend. Obeyesekere introduces the reader to a little known category of Sri Lankan socio-historical records which comprises the three genres of Kadaim Poth (boundary books), Vitthi Poth (books of events) and Bandaravaliyas (geneologies). Incidentally in the choice of subject there is some personal relevance to this occasion because Amunugama is known to be writing his own (his family’s) Bandaravaliya. Dr. H. A. P. Abeywardene from whose work the writer extracts translations of Kadaim Poth, has written earlier about the latter genre and recently about a related genre Lekam Miti. However, Obeyesekere’s essay is an analysis of all the three inter-related genres from a sociological perspective. (Obeyesekere chooses to name the combined category, ‘topographia’). It needs be mentioned that he cautions the reader that his is only “an exploratory paper and that more research is necessary to fully substantiate the arguments” presented in the paper. He also has the humility to declare his lack of competence, due to only a linguistic problem, to deal with a complementary aspect of his findings relating to the Sinhalization of South Indian immigrants — that of the Tamilization of Sinhala peoples in the North and East.

Prof. Obeyesekere’s tentative findings have a contemporary relevance. They show in essence what a melting pot we have been as a nation. Indeed, there are other ethnic elements inducted into the nation not reflected in the particular records that the writer focuses on in this essay. These findings are an uncomfortable antidote to many racial myths. It is not only a matter of periodic South Indian migrants but also a centuries long assimilation of the Aadivaasins . At the same time the Professor seems to show that the evidence of the national level Kadaim Poth particularly, confirm that the consciousness of a united polity existed. One can completely agree with the Professor’s mild rebuke of the professional historian for neglecting nay completely ignoring the vast store of socio-historical knowledge contained in these writings, the correct interpretation of which of course would require a scholarly discipline of a high order.

Professor Stanley J Tambiah of Harvard honours his old student at Peradeniya of many decades ago, (whom he calls “one of the most gifted and talented students I was privileged to be associated with”), with an extended extract of an old paper on ‘Polyandry in Ceylon’. Incidentally the piece of research relating to this paper on ‘The structure of polyandry in Laggala’ is one where Amunugama had been one of Tambiah’s student assistants in the field work. The paper brings out that the institution of polyandry, at least as practiced in the Laggala area, was primarily an economic arrangement where either land, labour or both were pooled to overcome the uneconomic size of productive units, whatever moralists may say about the practice.

The very interesting and informative article of the University of Virginia social anthropologist Prof. H. L. Seneviratne titled ‘Towards a National Art’ is a fitting tribute to a man who has involved himself deeply in the arts even as an active exponent, for instance playing the memorable role of Kachchaputa against the legendary Vediraja Edmund Wijesinghe’s Seri Vanija in Sarachchandra’s Kadawalalu .He also co-produced and acted in the Sanskrit adaptation – Ratnavalie the haunting melodies of which ( Jayantha Aravinda’s) still reverberate in the ear. Amunugama also wrote poetry bringing out a book of nisades poems (Hada thula aasaa) and co-edited the poetry magazine Nisadesa with Wimal Dissanayake..

Seneviratne’s is an analytical account of the search for a national identity in the arts (in its widest sense encompassing the visual and the performing arts) in the last century. Starting with a reference to the alarm bells rung at the beginning of the last century by the great Sri Lankan (as we would now call him) Ananda Coomaraswamy, with his open letter to the Kandyan Chiefs entreating them to come to the rescue of the fast vanishing national traditions in the arts, followed by his monumental Medieval Sinhalese Art. Seneviratne goes on to outline the developments in Sri Lankan painting, the theatre and music; during the following decades, the continued search for a national idiom in all these fields being the common thread. He refers to the work of George Keyt, Manjusri and the ’43 Group in the field of painting, the experiments of the Ranga Sabha of the University of Ceylon (still located in the single Colombo campus) in the field of drama and the pilgrimage to India by students of music seeking to pick up a lost classical tradition with which to foster an indigenous music. I have reason to believe that it was only a slip of memory that has prevented Sunil Shantha’s name being included in the last-mentioned group, in this essay.

The final flowering of the national theatre came with the advent of Professor Sarachchandra’s Maname giving birth as it did to a new genre of local theatre, imbibing as it did the best elements of the oriental dramatic tradition. A Bhathkande returned Amaradeva’s creative blending of the indigenous flavour of the folk song with the sophistication of the classical raga repertoire, was the high point reached in the long search for a national musical idiom. Both these developments Seneviratne subjects to detailed scholarly treatment.

The contribution by Dr. Ranee Jayamaha, senior Economist and former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, under the title ‘Recent Financial Crises: Regulatory Debate and Rethinking’ would be of considerable interest to the general reader who wishes to make some sense out of the bewildering goings-on witnessed in the financial arena of the developed countries in recent years, ultimately affecting the real economy of the entire world – a crisis from which the global system has not yet fully emerged. Jayamaha outlines the sources of the crisis starting with its Thacherite-Reaganite philosophical underpinning of blind faith in the market. She goes on to survey the current (mid 2009- the time of writing) scenario of the reaction to this turmoil by the governments and regulators of the major affected countries as well as others both at the national and international level. Notwithstanding such unresolved mysteries to the lay reader as ‘financial derivatives’ and ‘leverage’, the reader gets a flavour of the efforts being made to strengthen the ‘invisible hand’ of the18th century Father of Economics, Adams Smith with the ‘visible hand of good governance’ – so referred to by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen.

It is quite apposite that this volume should contain an input on this subject as Dr. Amunugama, as Finance Minister and later as special representative of the Head of State and Government had represented the country, with much distinction, in the many international fora that discussed the relevant issues.

Jayantha Dhanapala, perhaps the only Sri Lankan diplomat with a global reputation, writes on ‘Peradeniya University and the World’. Jayantha Dhanapala is another brilliant Peradeniya (and Trinity) product; the same as Amunugama. In fact they were class mates (at school) and ‘batch mates’ at the university. Though Jayantha’s nostalgia for the golden age of Peradeniya contrasted as it is with a later ‘Dark Age’ is eloquently brought out at the beginning of the paper, he actually uses Peradeniya and what it once stood for, as an anchor to express his views on certain essential national tasks of the present day. (Having referred to a Peradeniya ‘Dark Age’ it is only fair that one also makes reference to the glimmerings of hope that still survive, as Jayantha himself mentions, by referring to the annual research symposium that has apparently been conducted for the last several years without much fanfare. All “Peradeniyans’ would be happy to hear this encouraging information about their Alma Mater.)

Jayantha underscores the national urgency of the following tasks: (a) further equalizing the opportunities for and enhancing the quality of both school and tertiary education ( he quotes from a UNESCO report that nearly 50% of Sri Lankan students attend schools without a library), (b) fostering of professionalism – he shows that in the globally competitive world survival requires the continuing enhancement of professionalism of the actors in all fields of human activity (c) research – while skirting the thin ice of the debate on nationally relevant research as against more fundamental research for broadening and deepening human knowledge, he does two things (i) he underlines the global need for innovations for the sake of the survival of the human species as a whole and on the other hand (2) he recognises the need for prioritization in a society beset with resource limitations.

In the course of his scholarly paper Jayantha quotes many statistics but the one which fascinated me most was where he shows the ‘small country’ Sri Lanka of our normal consciousness (and consequently our ‘be our size’ mentality) has 72 UN members below it in territorial size and 139 below it in terms of population. That should give us a morale boost if nothing else does!

Professor J. B. Disanayaka, Professor Emeritus of the Colombo University and at present Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Thailand writes on ‘Sinhala and its patterns of thought’, in tribute to his close friend and Peradeniya contemporary. This is a very interesting article which brings to light how the distinctive way a community thinks fashions the way it expresses itself in its own language. For instance respect for elders and other superiors is a distinctive characteristic of Sinhala culture ( in common with other Asian cultures). This has its effect not only on the nouns used to refer to superiors (pluralisation of references to single individuals) but also on verbs which are differentiated when applied to different ‘grades’ of persons, as pointed out by J. B. Disanayaka. He also points out the sharp distinction made between animate and inanimate nouns when a verb is used with them, each of them taking a different verb form, unlike for instance in English. This sophistication of course makes it rather difficult for Sinhala to be learnt as a second language. Of course almost every language has such idiosyncrasies. A learner of French has to keep in mind that a book is masculine but the table on which it is kept is feminine. Only a professional in linguistics like Prof. Disanayake might be able to unravel the mysterious thought process of the Frenchman which invests the table with the feminine form. Contemporaries of JB and Sarath will remember Dr. Sugathapala Silva, JB’s guru, bending under the table, in GAQ Sinhala class, to ascertain whether it has a gender – in Sinhala.

Dr. Wickrama Weerasooria the reputed legal academic, who at the outset makes the interesting and frank revelation that he is guided by Oscar Wilde’s style in the writing of books, writes on the esoteric subject of the standing of Buddhist temples before the law i.e. whether or not they are juristic persons and legal entities. His title itself is an assertion that they are not and he proceeds to cite a number of cases to prove his thesis. Of course he is a legal commentator and not a protagonist in the debate and only states the case law as it stands today (subject to a different stand taken by judges in two recent cases but which remain to be tested as to whether they will be accepted as precedent in general or whether they will be distinguished and limited to the particular facts of the two cases.) Even for a lay reader who has no particular interest in the subject Werasooria’s treatment is intellectually stimulating, even though he says he has deliberately adopted a conversational style in contrast to what he would do in a forthcoming book on ecclesiastical law. To a Buddhist uninitiated in the law it does come as a surprise that a Buddhist temple is not recognized as a legal entity but then again he realizes that it is the Sasana that is the time honoured supreme institution in Buddhism – irrespective of whether an ‘entity’ of its nature can ever be recognized as a juristic person.

In his article titled ‘Ehipassiko: Another look at ” Sinhalese Buddhism,” Professor Siri Gunasinghe joins issue with anthropologists, mostly western, who have designated the Buddhism prevalent in Sri Lanka as a “Sinhalese Buddhism” that has evolved out of a supposed assimilation in doctrinal Buddhism of pre-Buddhist ritualistic practices aimed at the propitiation of deities and other denizens of the spirit world,. He convincingly shows that there has been no such assimilation and that in the Sri Lankan Buddhist’s perception the two occupy two different worlds of existence – the one for attaining spiritual – lokotttara – goals and the other for relief from day to day worldly – laukika – problems. Siri Gunasinghe seems to say that the ordinary Sri Lankan Buddhist, even the unsophisticated peasant, knows exactly what he is doing in these co-existing two different realms and is not confused like the anthropologist. It is a variation of ” Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God things that are God’s”

Dr. Rex Casinader of the University of British Columbia, slightly senior contemporary of Sarath Amunugama at Peradeniya and fellow sociologist, draws attention to an exceedingly important but somewhat neglected dimension of developmental planning – the spatial one. In a context where the Department of Physical Planning has just put out its National Physical Plan Casinader’s proposal for a Hambanthota –Colombo- Trincomalle development corridor takes on added significance. By way of introduction to his proposal Casinader introduces the reader to the apparent uniquely Asian phenomenon of the ‘desakota’ – a recently coined Sanskrit derived Bhasa Indonesia term meaning small geographical areas –small towns or villages – exhibiting both urban and rural characteristics. After citing several East Asian and Indian examples he names the Colombo-Galle seaboard as a geographical corridor having the nature of a desakota corridor. The relevance of this phenomenon is that in a developing country context such a corridor linked as they are with metropolitan centres having international transport and commercial connections would be the ideal ground for value added export growth (as already witnessed elsewhere in Asia.) As Casinader points out the new harbour at Hambantota (rather than Galle with its marine topography limitations) would be the ideal growth centre as one terminal of a developmental corridor supported as it is going to be by new railway and highway development. The other wing of the arch-like development corridor with Colombo as the pivot, proposed by Dr. Casinader will link Colombo with Trincomalee through Kurunegala, Habarana etc (although Casinader would sequestrate Dambulla, on the way, as a heritage site the government is already going ahead with mega plans to make it a growth centre). Casinader’s is an exciting proposal and one hopes that Dr. Amunugama will champion it in the councils of state.

The contribution of Benjamin Schonthal of the University of Chicago relates directly Sarath Amunugama’s work as a ‘skillful and engaged sociologist’, as the writer describes him. He examines the concepts relating to state and religion of two classical giants in the discipline of sociology, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber and proceeds to relate these to the conceptualizations in Amunugama’s article titled Buddhaputra and Bhumiputra. He concludes “Dr. Amunugama provides a more critical appraisal of this interaction ( i.e. between religion and politics) in the context of modern, democratic Buddhist states like Sri Lanka”

Sociologist Dr. Kitsiri Malalgoda of the University of Auckland examines the diverse interpretations of the well known passage in the Rajavaliya (quoted in even school text books) on the first encounter that people of Sri Lanka had with a European nation – the first sighting of the Portuguese in Colombo. The local people who saw them are recorded as having reported about them to the King at Kotte in superlative terms being struck with awe and fear. One interpretation of this so called report is that the passage has been written by a convert to the Catholic faith and therefore partial to the Portuguese ( the first of a long line of colonial lackeys?) to deliberately represent them as a superior race.

Another completely opposite view is that it was a deliberate demonization of them – eating stones and drinking blood, attributes of the devil. A still more fanciful interpretation is that the reference to bread as stones and wine as blood was a sinister and denigrating allusion to the use of bread and wine in the Roman Catholic Holy Communion. Malalgoda also refers the other story current about this first encounter (or phase II thereof) where the Portuguese emissaries plead to and obtain from the King an ox hide’s extent of land to sit on and ply their wares and craftily tear the ox hide in to thin strips and use them to mark out a substantial extent of land within which they proceed to build a fort. It turns out that as Dr Malalgoda shows the ox hide trick is as old as Carthage and Virgil may have been the teacher of the 16th Century Portuguese. It all makes for interesting reading.

Among other contributors Ven. Niyangoda Sri Vipassi Anunayaka of the Malwatta Chapter writes a scholarly article in Sinhala on the life and times of the Ven. Velivita Sri Saranankara, the great 18th century author of the Buddhist revival and incidentally the greatest son of Galagedara that Amunugama has been representing in Parliament for a long time. Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa in his beautiful Sinhala prose has written about Peradeniya, Sarachchandra and Amunugama, focusing on Amunugama’s recent book ‘Maname Mathakwee’ ( Remembering Maname). Prof. Carlo Fonseka in his inimitable style affirms his unshakeable belief in Scientific Materialism as behooves our rational thinker, par excellence. Dr. Saman Kelegama writes on managing food price inflation in Sri Lanka, in the context of a looming global food crisis engendered by multifarious factors. Prof Ariya Rajakaruna in his essay traces the evolution of Prof. Sarachchandra’s conception of Drama, culminating in his apparent pessimism regarding the future of the Nadagam tradition that he himself revived. The Rhodes scholar and Amunugama contemporary at Peradeniya Prof. Michael Roberts of the University of Adelade writes a paper titled ‘Understanding Zealots: Questions for Post-Orientalism. Making at the end of the essay the unusual proclamation of himself as a ‘thuppahi’ Dr. Roberts engages in a preliminary exploration of Sinhala ideology as concerns the Other– the ethnic outsider.

President’s Counsel Nigel Hatch in a very lucid article recounts the proceedings of the case in which Sarath Amunugama challenged the UNP’s expulsion of him ( and others) from that party and which case ended up in a landmark judgment upholding the principle of natural justice. Anne M Blackburn of Cornell University writes on Governor William H. Gregory best known for his establishment of the Colombo Museum.. His great contribution to the preservation of Sri Lankan antiquities and his admirable aesthetic sense in relation to them is brought out by the writer. An interesting snippet is that the Governor contributed out of his own pocket (and not out of government funds) to the late 19th century Buddhist effort to restore Ruwanweliseya. Dr. Tara de Mel the former Secretary to the Ministry of Education writes on the subject of Human Insecurity and Education.

In a contribution relating to an activity completely different from those of the others, veteran Architect Ashley de Vos writes on the making of the Amunugma house, a house that won an annual award for the best designed house in that year, a tribute I presume not only to the architect’s creativity but also to the owner’s taste.

As was stated at the beginning of this review, this festschrift celebrates the many facets of the life and times of Sarath Amunugama. It is an excellent compendium of scholarly writing on a very wide range of subjects. Incidentally apart from being a tribute to Amunugama, the book is a veritable celebration of Peradeniya’s great contribution to global academia since the majority of the contributors are Peradeniya alumni adorning universities all over the world from Princeton, Harvard and Virginia to Adelaide and Auckland and other world class centers of learning and research. Sarath Amunugama was indeed one of the brightest products of the Peradeniya University in its hey day as several contributors have mentioned. Even at that time many expected him to reach the highest goals possible in this country. He has not fared badly. Sarath also influenced the budding character of many young men around him. His iconoclastic attitude to men and matters was a refreshing counter to the uncritical reverence to holy cows. His light-hearted approach to life in general (despite his many competencies and accomplishments) forbade pomposity in others. To the humblest of his acquaintances he has been approachable. Above all he has been and remains a loveable person – even when you disagree with him.




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